Book review: The Stars, Like Dust by Issac Asimov

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Today, I’m going to talk about a space adventure story! There’re blasters! There’s faster-than-light travel! There’s an heir whose father is accused of treason by an evil space empire. A princess of another planet who runs from an arranged marriage. There’s a treacherous friend and a stalwart supporter. The hero gets the girl and then joins a nascent rebellion against the galactic dictator.

No, it’s not the 1934 comic Flash Gordon nor is it Star Wars, though there are similarities. But that’s a different discussion.

Let’s talk about The Stars, Like Dust by Isaac Asimov and the story of a college kid who is targeted for assassination because of his father’s political power at home.

Published in 1951, I was expecting a tale that felt like 1951, but instead I enjoyed a classic science-fiction adventure that satisfied both the Star Trek and Star Wars fan in me. It’s a fun sci-fi action-adventure story.

The story is set in the future by about 1,000 years. The buildings on Earth are all built to withstand a nuclear blast. Humanity has survived a nuclear war and parts of the globe are completely uninhabitable. The remaining population live in concentrated population zones. Geiger counters and radiation badges are a way of life.

Our hero, Biron Ferrill, is from another planet. Humanity has spread out across the galaxy. Planetary travel is similar to travelling to another state or maybe traveling internationally, considering the paperwork requirements. Biron’s father is the Rancher of Widemos, a position roughly analogous to an aristocratic ruler, like a duke or prince.

It turns out that the Rancher of Widemos is a political resister to the ruling Tyranni autocracy. He is arrested and executed for treason. His son, Biron, vows to find justice for his father. But before he can start to make plans, he is intercepted on Earth by an associate of his father’s. Seeming friendly, Sander Jonti tells Biron to go to the planet Rhodia where the planetary Director, another aristocratic title, might be sympathetic to Biron and possibly help him. Later, we find that Jonti had some serious ulterior motivations for sending Biron in the direction he did.

However, the Director of Rhodia is a weak man and refuses to do anything to come in conflict with the Tyranni dictatorship. In fact, he plans to turn Biron over to the Tyranni to show his subservience. While there, Biron meets the Director’s daughter, Artemesia, and the Director’s brother, Gilbret. Immediately, Biron is attracted to Artemesia and we get to revisit the classic “aristocrat heir falls in love with a princess, but she thinks he’s a commoner” love story. Artemesia is also betrothed to a much older noble in the Tyranni court through a political arrangement and she doesn’t like that at all. Artemesia and Gilbret help Biron escape from Rhodia just at the Tyranni arrive to arrest Biron.

Therein begins a race across the galaxy to find a secret base for resistance against the tyrannical rule of the Tyranni. At this point, I definitely felt the whole space opera vibe of the story. That vibe is reminiscent of Star Trek, fifteen years before Star Trek existed. Also, it’s very much like Star Wars, 26 years before Star Wars existed. The Stars, Like Dust feels like part of the mold in which those stories were formed.

In the ensuing adventure, it turns out that Sander Jonti, who supposedly was a friendly acquaintance who wanted to help Biron, is actually a ruler of a planet himself. He’s the Autarch of Lingane and he has his own ambitions against the Khan, as the galactic ruler is called in the book. At the same time, a Tyranni fleet is tracking Biron and Jonti, thinking that they would find an alleged “rebellion planet” that is preparing for open insurrection against the ruling dictatorship.

Jonti, as the Autarch, more or less takes Biron and his friends into custody in order to find the rebel planet; the Autarch sets guards around them and separates Artemesia from Biron. Biron leads him to a deserted planet in the Horsehead Nebula in order to confront him. The Autarch nearly wins in the brawl until he betrayed by one of his own officers, who snipes him from hiding. When Biron returns to the ship and discusses his next steps with his friends, Artemesia’s father, the Director of Rhodia, reveals himself as playing the toady to protect his planet, which in actuality is the rebellion planet.

Asimov was the real deal. Hard science mixed with fiction. He tells you how to calculate space travel, but in a manner consistent with pop culture aesthetic. No wonder he is considered such a legend in the sci-fi. Also, he throws in a “dad jokes” like he’s telling a shaggy dog story. There’s a reference to why the Horsehead Nebula is called the Horsehead Nebula. One of the characters says it’s because Horace Hedd was the first person to enter the nebula.

I’m pretty sure I hear a rim shot every time I read that passage.

One of the major issues I had with the story was the use of a particular macguffin. Through the whole story, the Biron and his friends discuss a long-lost document from Earth’s past that would be a powerful weapon against the Tyranni. By the end of the book, we learn that the incredibly powerful document is The Constitution of the United States. Asimov presents it as a major twist in the story, but it falls flat in execution. A thousand years in the future and that’s a revolutionary document? That’s a bit like saying the Magna Carta is revolutionary and seditious.

Finally, the other gripe I have with the book is that the story feels just a little too wrapped up too quickly at the end. There could have been a lot more story in the denouement, but it’s wrapped up with effectively an extended summary that ties all the loose ends together. While it’s not deus ex machina level convenient, The Stars, Like Dust is still ended pretty abruptly. Maybe it was the time in which Asimov wrote it. Today, there would have been another 100 pages or more before the final page.

Overall, The Stars, Like Dust is a fun and enjoyable read. It’s timeless. Go forth and read it!

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